Icons of Photography: William Klein

William Klein was born on April 19, 1928, He grew up on the upper west reaches of Manhattan, Jewish in an Irish neighbourhood, the son of impoverished parents in a wealthy family. His father was something of a real-life Willy Loman who lost all his money in the Wall Street crash. Klein’s uncle, though, was a top showbiz lawyer, for Charlie Chaplin and Dalí. Even at home, Klein was an outsider – a placement he has spent his life recreating.

He skipped school to play pool and visit MoMA. Conscripted, he worked as a cartoonist on the US army newspaper – which took him to Europe in the final stages of the second world war. He liked it there. He felt at home – unlike his actual home where he felt like a foreigner. He won his first camera, a Rolleiflex, playing poker.

Like so many photographers, he started out wanting to be a painter. He moved to Paris in 1948 to study art at the Sorbonne and with the Cubist painter Fernand Léger. In 1952, he photographed some of his own paintings in blurry motion. The Italian magazine Domus put them on the cover. And so Klein became a photographer. ‘It seemed to me something like magic.’ He worked for magazines, Vogue in particular.

The work that made his name was a book. Financed by Vogue for a feature that never ran, it was titled Life Is Good & Good For You In New York, William Klein: Trance Witness Revels. Published (and acclaimed) in France in 1956, it didn’t come out in the US until 40 years later.

‘Perhaps the first great Pop book in its exuberance and energy,’ said Martin Parr, one of the many photographers deeply influenced by the loud American-in-Paris. The book’s impact is also there, if not always clear, in Bailey (unabashed vulgarity, moving in close to the subject), Newton (Manhattan’s possibilities, sly wit) and Araki (bottomless hunger, child-like playfulness).

Klein’s own starting point was Cartier-Bresson. He bought an old camera from the French master – and ‘very consciously’ developed a technique that was the precise opposite. Where Cartier-Bresson’s aesthetic was invisibility, Klein got in tight and close and personal. ‘The kinetic quality of New York, the kids, dirt, madness – I tried to find a photographic style that would come close to it. I didn’t see clean technique being right for New York. I could imagine my pictures lying in the gutter like the New York Daily News.’

He studied and shot his city as if seeing it all for the first time. (That stranger in his own hometown thing again.) Ads, street signs, a 7-Up billboard, a pair of young boys with a toy gun pointed at the camera (and viewer). Everything. He sucked it all into his camera.

He was a Weegee working the day shift – though without the violence and gunshot wounds. Yet he was also a demotic Man Ray, finding the incongruous and impossible on the city streets. A tabloid Rodchenko, too, tipping his camera this way and that in search of more life in all its crude directness. His aim was visual loudness. He liked mess, too. And the drunken, aggressive, violating 28mm lens.

In search of the meaning he was after, he’d try anything, allow anything. ‘I had neither training nor complexes. By necessity and choice, I decided that anything would have to do. A technique of no taboos: blur, grain, contrast, cockeyed framing, accidents, whatever happens . . . the rawest snapshot, the zero degree of photography.’

His compositions are full – overfull even – and unbalanced. Deliberately so. ‘I saw the book I wanted to do as a tabloid gone berserk, gross, grainy, over-inked, with a brutal layout, bull-horn headlines. This is what New York deserved and would get,’ he said. His pictures know that there is way too much in life out there to fit it all into one photograph, but they will have a go anyway. They are the images of a hungry artist – hungry in the way that, for an alcoholic, one drink is too many and a thousand never enough. ‘I could never get enough into the camera. I wanted it all in a gluttonous rage.’

He’s an angry man, too, even now – in many ways, still the isolated, different child in an indifferent world. ‘He has a knack of offending people, particularly those who might help him,’ wrote John Heilpern in an Aperture monograph. Working for Vogue, he made a good living from fashion photography, creating images as filled with life and impatience and hunger as his pictures of New York. Yet he always makes a point of announcing that he hated the fashion world and everything about it apart from the models.

Not that he chased them. He was faithful to his wife, Belgian model Jeanne Florin, ‘the most beautiful woman in the world’. They met on his second day in Paris and were together until her death in 2005. She described him as: ‘Someone who never really wants to reveal who he is. All the important people, he was never polite to them, even those he liked. He hardly has any close friends. Maybe I’m the only one. He never played the game.’

He made books on Rome, Moscow, Tokyo. ‘I found the Japanese were sick of the image of Zen photography and they wanted real vulgar, brutal and dirty photography.’ He mostly gave up photography in the mid-1960s, in favour of the moving image. His first movie work was as ‘co-director’ on Louis Malle’s Zazie Dans Le Métro, giving it a romantic visual style that the French director could never match on his other films. He also made his own films, low-budget, self-distributed ones about Muhammad Ali, Little Richard, fashion – Qui Êtes-Vous, Polly Magoo? And he made more than 250 TV commercials, including ones for Citröen and Fiat. ‘He possesses a breezy combination of principle and opportunism,’ wrote Heilpern.

He returned to photography in the 1980s, inspired by new interest in his old pictures. He photographed Barcelona and re-photographed his loved-hated New York. Later, in his eighties, he took to painting directly on to his contact sheets, in garish enamels.

William Klein lived in Paris – in an apartment in the 6th arrondissement, with a tortoiseshell cat called Nanou. It overlooks the Luxembourg Gardens and is just around the corner from where Man Ray died, broke. Klein died on 10th September 2022 aged 96.

© Peter Silverton 2019

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